‘Casteing’ a discriminatory gaze on classical and traditional folk arts

Chinese president Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mahabalipuram, Mamallapuram, visit, folk art forms, traditional art forms, Tamil art forms, Kombattam, Thappattam, Poi kaal kudhirai aattam, Silambattam, Oyilattam,
Singer TM Krishna triggered the debate with a post in which he said that discrimination of the arts and its practitioners remains entrenched. He claimed that the so-called classical artistes were given a respectful proscenium stage and folk artistes were performing in the airport. Image for representative purpose only.

Social media went abuzz after the Modi-Xi meet at Mahabalipuram finally came to an end, debating whether or not casteism was on display during the cultural programmes presented specially for the occasion.

Singer TM Krishna triggered the debate with a post in which he said from what he saw, it was clear that discrimination of the arts and its practitioners remains entrenched. The so-called classical artistes were given a respectful proscenium stage and folk artistes were performing in the airport. He also cited discriminatory treatment towards nadaswaram artists who were made to stand in the hot sun. He called these kind of actions that have been happening for decades a celebration of casteism.

What followed was incessant interactions under the post, mostly between upper caste art connoisseurs, self proclaimed “rasikas” and upper caste liberals — some supporting and some speaking against TM Krishna amidst themselves, like they always do. Amidst all of this, we had articles published hailing Krishna as the one-man army against all social evils within the world of the arts.

While the bashing and the media attention are usual when it comes to Krishna, there were quite a few people who did place very valid criticism against him. Is he doing enough as a privileged male Brahmin to change things or is he just doing enough to keep himself in the limelight? What did he do when he was part of the governing board member committee of this very institution of Kalakshetra between the years 2012-2015 under the previous ruling government? Was he asking these very relevant questions back then?


I , for my part, decided to put forward my thoughts as someone belonging to the hereditary community whose members were once  the sole practitioners of the art form that is now known as Bharathanatyam. I have to, as someone who is not part of these discourses, historically admit that I felt quite heroic to jut in with my opinion.

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I wrote, “While I do agree with the point that there is absolutely discrimination and caste based exclusionary tactics like these, hasn’t it always been this way, whatever we follow now was instilled by the previous governments too? We have always been casteist and classist! The fact that some dancers were made to dance in the sun while others from a “pioneer” institution were given a good stage needs to be thought about also. The contribution and the actual source of the art forms, the hereditary artistes are completely forgotten and natyasastra was being credited on stage. The problem is that, even to point this out, one needs to be upper caste/class in this country, because let’s face it, marginalised lower caste voices are never heard.”

I was more gratified that TM Krishna himself responded to my comment agreeing with everything I said. Accreditation from an upper caste celebrity is vital for us lower caste people. When the “casteless collective” themselves looked for approval from Krishna for their music, I would be lying through my teeth if I said the approval didn’t make me quite delirious.

Another commentator and prominent theatre personality, Prasanna Ramasamy discussing the very same event said in another post, ” How the dominant, both caste and class, keep strengthening and reinventing identities, disenfranchising the original creators and how the ruling state is a conniver recurrently is amazing. In one sweep, the person doing the announcements, the current director of Kalakshetra, transported Bharathanatyam from Tholkappiyam through Natya Sastra to Rukmini Devi, conveniently forgetting that the very alaripu they were presenting and the entire margam taught by Kalakshetra is rendered and given format by the indigenous artists known as nattuvanars and devadasis and kept alive by their descendants.”

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This again has been happening ever since under the  nationalist agenda of pre-independent India. The indigenous practitioners of very many art forms were declared immoral both by society and law and their art forms were appropriated and accredited as “classical artforms”. What one must note is that these very same hereditary artistes were the human links to the shastras and vedas that the art forms were being accredited to. They were the living tradition but now they are conveniently forgotten, like when the commentator jumped from Natya shastra to Rukmini Devi.

Publisher and a self-proclaimed Modi afficionado Badri Seshadri alleged that TM Krishna was furthering his politics by these statements, as the folk and the cultural events organised in the airport were by the state government and the central government chose to only showcase “classical art forms” for which they chose Kalakshetra. This then brings us to the question as to who decides which art forms are classical and which are not and whether classical art forms are more respectful than folk art forms. And would it be because of the caste and class of the practitioners of such art forms?

He also might have forgotten that not too long ago, these very arts were considered polluting by members of the upper castes, came the valid retort by commentator Aravindan Kannaiyan.

Classical would mean old and authentic. Can Bharathanatyam, which is an appropriated art form from the devadasi community less than a hundred years ago, be called one? What it is now is an “invented tradition”.

[The invention of tradition is a concept made prominent in the eponymous 1983 book edited by British Marxist intellectual EJ Hobsbawm and TO Ranger. In the introduction, Hobsbawm argues that many “traditions” which “appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.”]

These occurrences of exclusionary treatments towards artistes are not unique to this particular government, like TM Krishna himself says we have been doing it for decades. The last time Queen Elizabeth paid a visit to Chennai, she was taken to Kalakshetra. Swarnamalya Ganesh, in a comment, mentioned  how her teacher KJ Sarasa from my hereditary community wondered why artistes like her weren’t ever considered to present themselves for such events. The selection process for most events is quite unclear from time immemorial.

One also needs to wonder as to how long classical arts, activism and all else will only be dominated by the voices of a select few from the upper castes and class. Is there space for the voice and the art of the marginalised in the world’s largest democracy?

(Nrithya Pillai, who is a bharatanatyam dancer, runs her own dance school in Chennai and is from the hereditary dance family of Swamimalai Rajarathinam Pillai.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)
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